Non-invasive assessment of fecal glucocorticoid and androgen metabolites in the pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis)

Gabriella L. Flacke, Linda M. Penfold, Franz Schwarzenberger, Graeme B. Martin, César A. Rosales-Nieto, Monique C. J. Paris

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The pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis) is an endangered species endemic to the Upper Guinea Forest ecosystem in West Africa. We have limited information concerning the species’ reproduction and well-being under managed care. We therefore developed non-invasive methods for characterizing gonadal androgen and adrenal hormone profiles in pygmy hippos using fecal samples collected from 12 males and 12 females housed in North American zoological institutions. We aimed to: 1) identify and validate enzyme immunoassays (EIAs) for measuring metabolites of corticosteroids and testosterone in feces; and 2) test whether gonadal activity is correlated with previous breeding history, season or type of housing. For glucocorticoids, several EIAs for measuring metabolites were investigated. A group-specific EIA exhibiting cross-reactivity with 11,17-dioxoandrostane (DOA) metabolites of cortisol most clearly reflected adrenocortical activity in response to pharmocological challenge with adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) in both males and females. However, day-to-day concentrations of this metabolite in the feces of pygmy hippos that did not undergo ACTH challenge were near the detection limits of the assay, making this EIA impractical for assessing glucocorticoid activity in this species. Another group-specific EIA, exhibiting cross-reactivity with 5α-pregnane-3β,11β,21-triol-20-one, produced biologically relevant data and evidence of an appropriate response to pharmacological challenge with exogenous ACTH. The testosterone metabolite assay C196 (Arbor Assays, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA) also produced biologically coherent data: adult males exhibited the highest mean androgen metabolite concentrations (477 ng/g), followed by adult females (259 ng/g) and juvenile males (160 ng/g). Proven breeding males had higher, but not significantly different, mean concentrations (472 ng/g) to unproven males (352 ng/g; P = 0.400). Similarly, adult males housed outdoors year-round in subtropical climates exhibited higher, but not statistically different mean concentrations (554 ng/g) to males in temperate climates that were housed indoors at least part of the year (412 ng/g; P = 0.208). There were, however, significant differences in mean concentrations among seasons for adult males, with higher values in spring (546 ng/g) and summer (542 ng/g) than in autumn (426 ng/g) and winter (388 ng/g, P = 0.003). In conclusion, we identified EIAs for the measurement of fecal metabolites of androgens and glucocorticoids that can be used for further studies to monitor gonadal activity in male pygmy hippos and adrenocortical activity in both sexes. We also identified a seasonal trend in male gonadal activity in this species under managed care in North America. Finally, our findings highlight an important consideration when using non-invasive methods for evaluating fecal cortisol metabolites: ACTH used for pharmacological validation of an EIA does not necessarily equate to biological relevance.

Original languageEnglish
Article number114338
JournalGeneral and Comparative Endocrinology
Publication statusPublished - 15 Sept 2023


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